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Thomas R. Spencer, Jr., sighs gently into the phone and tries again to explain what his group, the Association of Former Intelligence Officers (AFIO), actually does. "We're about educating the public about what the intelligence community does and doesn't do," he says. Yes, I grant, but what you mainly do is tell war stories and scarf down bland, rubbery chicken lunches in stuffy banquet rooms at downtown hotels, right? "We're a serious organization," he counters. Like a Rotary Club for old spooks? Finally he gives in. "You're welcome to come to the next lunch," he offers, adding slyly, "We'd be happy to blindfold you and take you for a ride."
Miami truly is a subtropical Casablanca, with a colorful, sordid history dating almost to its swampy beginnings. It has served as Washington outpost for both overt and covert Latin American policies, from the Spanish-American War to the Bay of Pigs to Iran-Contra, and as haven to the exiled and ousted from the regimes of Latin America and the Caribbean. It's also a great place to hide, whether you are a retired spook, aging mobster, deposed general, or 9/11 terrorist. In short, this is a town whose denizens breathe intrigue in with the humid air.
Given this background, I'm picturing the AFIO as a bunch of grizzled old guys in battered flak jackets debating the finer points of jungle missions over cigars and Scotch in a dark corner of some rifle range. But no such luck. At the appointed hour, a contingent of about 30 well-dressed people assembles in a corner dining room of the Banker's Club, on the fourteenth floor of One Biscayne Tower. Queuing obediently in front of a buffet spread of fancy cold cuts, pasta salad, and chocolate cake, the mostly male, mostly middle-age crowd resembles any other crowd of bankers, lawyers, or real estate agents gorging itself on mediocre fare all over Miami. Many of them, in fact, are lawyers, bankers, or real estate agents. There are also a couple of judges, a car dealer, one or two accountants, and a fair number of consultants who deal in business and personal security. But one or two careers ago, most of them were working for the CIA, Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), National Security Agency (NSA), and other intelligence outfits with inscrutable acronyms. Spencer (a prominent local attorney who represented Iran-contra figure Maj. Gen. Richard Secord in the Eighties and was part of the Bush legal team during the 2000 presidential recount mess) begins by leading the Pledge of Allegiance. He then turns the floor over to Fred Rustmann, a former CIA man with a book to sell about using secret agent techniques to counter economic espionage.
At one table near the front of the room, a blond, middle-age woman who currently works for the school district recalls fondly her years spent in and out of the Nicaraguan jungles in the Iran-contra Eighties, generating information others could use to counter, as she puts it, "the propaganda line the mainstream media had swallowed from the Sandinistas." Comandanta Leona, I'll call her, doesn't want to go into the details, but mentions she still enjoys rappelling off ten-story buildings. "Not bad for a 57-year-old bag, eh?" she jokes, casting a look at a couple of former Green Berets tunneling through the pasta salad on their plates.
Up at the podium, the gray-suited Rustmann is well into his spiel about his CIA career -- recruited in college, sent to Saigon after surviving the Agency "Farm," a stint in Paris, then on to Ethiopia to deal with an uncooperative dictator. "In Ethiopia, we were surrounded by the Soviets and the Cubans," he says, then realizing he's in Miami, qualifies: "The bad Cubans, not our guys." At my table, Leona is advising me that if I really want to understand what we're up against in the post-9/11 world, then I should pick up a copy of The Arab Mind, a 30-year-old analysis of Arabic culture by Hungarian scholar Raphael Patai.
Later, a man I'll call Smith, a Miami native with a long career in the local financial sector, approaches, eyeing me warily. Smith comes from a family with deep roots in the intelligence community, locally and internationally. One relative who has since passed on was renowned and feared as a brilliant yet paranoid CIA Cold Warrior, but Smith doesn't want his name dredged up because it worries the relatives. "A lot of spies retire in Miami," he says. "You can't use names or you will put people in danger. This is a very strange, very dangerous town. You don't sleep after awhile."
A very strange town
In the Sixties and Seventies, the CIA's largest field base was in Miami, headquartered out of the code-named JM/WAVE station, a former naval facility just west of the current Metrozoo complex in the southwest part of the county. The CIA also ran gigs out of the Opa-locka airport, such as the 1954 overthrow of Guatemalan president Jacobo Arbenz. When Fidel Castro came to power, a sizable portion of the Cuban exile community was mobilized and trained to overthrow the communist dictator, resulting in the disastrous Bay of Pigs operation of 1961. That debacle led to Operation Mongoose, a huge Miami-based campaign of worldwide espionage, sabotage, and propaganda largely aimed at Castro's Cuba, until it fizzled out officially in the Seventies. One amusing subplot involved the Agency teaming up with mobsters Santo Trafficante, Sam Giancana, and Johnny Rosselli to poison Castro (allegedly hatching the plot at the Fontainebleau Hotel on Miami Beach). And some of the Watergate burglars were CIA-trained Cubans led by ex-spy E. Howard Hunt, still a Miami guy.